Driven by the hyper-density of the city-state from which they operate, WOHA have emerged as Singapore's quintessential architects. Combining a locally-specific approach to climate control and spatial planning with an international approach to form and materials, their work holds lessons that can be instructive to architects in all climates. In this interview, the latest in his “City of Ideas” column, Vladimir Belogolovsky speaks to WOHA founders Wong Mun Summ and Richard Hassell about their environmental approach and the future of our global cities.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: How did you two meet and what was it that attracted you to each other?
Wong Mun Summ: I graduated from the National University of Singapore in 1989 and Richard graduated from the University of Western Australia in Perth the same year. There was a recession at the time in Australia so he came to Singapore to look for work.
Richard Hassell: Asia was a natural place to go to, as it was the early days of the Asian economic bubble and construction was booming. When it burst, suddenly, no one could sell their properties. That’s when design became very important for developers. Before that, they could sell anything off the plan. After, the attention shifted from the exuberance of form-making to aiming at providing quality living and smart economical solutions. We started with small projects, mainly houses.
VB: Your work can be identified as green architecture. Was it intended as a conscious direction from the beginning?
WMS: Yes. As far back as at our universities, we both studied environmental design with a focus on passive, energy efficient buildings.
RH: The dean at my school was an environmental scientist, not an architect. We had many professors who came out of the energy crisis, so they were environmentally conscious. It was in the 1980s when architects started embracing such slogans as “greed is good.”
WMS: Then came the form-making contest among architects and out of that, star architecture evolved. But our training was more based on being conscious about the environment and that’s what formed our design strategies. Introducing landscaping and greenery, and creating social spaces within our buildings became the backbone and key features of our work.
VB: One of your exhibitions was called Breathing Architecture. Is this the key principle of your work—to create buildings that breathe?
RH: Absolutely. That exhibit was held in Germany where they are required by regulation to design buildings that are entirely sealed from nature and provide very controlled environments. But for us it was important to demonstrate the alternative of porous and perforated buildings, because in the tropics the difference between comfort and something that’s very uncomfortable is just a matter of air movement. Sealing a building means consuming a great deal of energy to create comfort.
WMS: So for us, shaping and forming buildings is all about finding the best ways for providing breezes and air movement. Air should be constantly moving across spaces within buildings.
VB: Another one of your shows was called Exotic More or Less.
RH: That was also in Germany where our work was paired with W Architects, also from Singapore. The combined show was called Exotic More or Less, within that our section was titled WOHA More on Less. We demonstrated how to achieve more comfort with fewer resources for high-density living in the environment, which is viewed as exotic in Germany and “More on Less” of course, is a play on Miesian phrase “Less is More.”
VB: Would you say there is such a thing as Singapore architecture?
WMS: There is a broad repertoire of what architects are pursuing in architecture but it is very recognizable, yes.
RH: The local climate is a very powerful influence for Singapore architects. If you don’t provide cross ventilation the environment may be unbearable, so a common set of forms and strategies have evolved for this particular reason.
VB: Can climate alone produce distinctive architecture? What about Kuala Lumpur? Climatically it is right next to Singapore, but its architecture is not as distinctive.
WMS: Yes, the climate there is very similar but in Singapore, we push the boundaries a lot more.
RH: Also Singapore is constrained by its size while Malaysia has a lot of land. Kuala Lumpur has an option to spread horizontally, whereas we can only grow upwards. Real estate prices in Singapore are much higher and that pushes up the construction budgets we work with, which gives us more opportunities to innovate with form and materials.
VB: Was there a particular project for you that could be called as your defining moment? In other words, was there a project that would make you realize—aha, now this is the right direction for us?
WMS: It was a competition project called Duxton Plain Public Housing International Competition held in Singapore in 2001 organized by the Urban Redevelopment Authority. We didn’t win it but it presented an opportunity for us to experiment with many of the design strategies we operate with today. The project became very instrumental for us, but at the time, conservative building codes would not allow such a project to be built, so we did not win that competition. But years later, in 2015, we built our SkyVille@Dawson public housing project also in Singapore, which is based on those initial ideas. The project consists of twelve 47-story towers. They are placed to form three diamond-shaped interconnected atriums spanned by public sky terraces that effectively multiply the ground level.
VB: Where do you derive your inspiration from?
RH: We are interested in many things. Many inspirations come from outside of architecture. We are interested in traditional arts and crafts such as textiles and weaving. That informs us about how to design our facades and other form-defining components. We are also inspired by landscapes...
WMS: Almost everything and nothing specific. What we are really driven by, being in Singapore, a land-limited place, is that we are forced to think about high density. That is the most important driving force for us.
VB: And what do you think about the work of such pioneering green architects as Emilio Ambasz?
WMS: Sure, we went to school at the time when Ambasz was most influential and so buildings buried under the landscape were quite an influence on us.
VB: What words would you use to describe your architecture?
RH: And if you go deeper into our work, there are many connections to Asian visual culture, arts and crafts.
WMS: And also the scale. Many of our projects are quite big, on the scale of megastructures, but we always address the issue of how to humanize our buildings, so people can relate to them.
VB: What is the main intention of your work?
RH: Our intention is to be good in the broadest sense—good for the planet, good for the city, good for the people.
WMS: And good for the developer. [Laughs.] The more people are satisfied the better. It is important to achieve certain outcomes that are objectively good for everybody.
VB: How would you describe this moment in architecture? Are we going through a crisis and would you say green architecture is a trend of philosophy?
RH: I wouldn’t say architecture is in crisis. Perhaps the world is in crisis and architecture responds to that. We are for sure in transition from having our focus on formal innovation in the last fifteen years.
VB: Are you interested in formal innovation yourselves?
WMS: That’s part of architecture! We don’t want to give up on that. Architecture is about form making. But we think there is a lot more to it. We need to be making more than just interesting shapes.
VB: Singapore evokes vertical possibilities with horizontal connections in midair. How do you see your city’s future?
WMS: Singapore is an island city and a nation. It can’t get bigger. We need to work on making it denser in the most exiting way. We are an example for other cities not to get too large and to grow responsively ecologically.
RH: With our students, we explore ideas about how future cities can be entirely self-sufficient within city limits and not rely on enormous suburbs and hinterlands. So we are developing strategies to limit the ecological footprint of megacities to their actual physical size—and finding out the limits to density.
VB: When you design your high-rises shooting up into the sky, such as your recently completed permeable Oasia Downtown tower in the heart of Singapore, do you imagine these structures one day becoming a singular megastructure holding pedestrian bridges connecting to neighboring towers?
WMS: We hope so.
VB: So these towers, in a way, serve as bridges into the future, right?
WMS: That is the whole point. We try to instigate with our projects ideas about the potentials for our cities in the future. Someday the future will offer cities that are much more connected. Cities will be truly three-dimensional.
VB: So the ideas of futuristic megacities from the 1960s may be revisited.
WMS: Sure. But in the past the focus was on machine looking aesthetics, whereas now the goal is to make our cities more livable.
RH: We aim at merging the megacity project from the past with the idea of a garden city for the future. We want our cities to be cozy, comfortable, natural, and domestic.
WMS: Our ideal is to create a comfortable garden suburb experience and then replicate it vertically through a megastructure for everyone to enjoy.
VB: Are you aiming at achieving your own voice in architecture?
RH: We feel we have a voice, even though it may not be distinctive stylistically as some formalistic architects have achieved. Our projects may not look 100% consistent stylistically, but our strategic ideas and philosophy of what is critical and valuable all have become our signature. We are erasing boundaries between architecture and landscape. The beliefs that man is separate from nature and cities are separate from countryside are obsolete. In the Anthropocene era, the whole world is a managed landscape. The only way to preserve nature is to integrate it into our built environment. It is supercritical.
VLADIMIR BELOGOLOVSKY is the founder of the New York-based non-profit Curatorial Project. Trained as an architect at Cooper Union in New York, he has written five books, including Conversations with Architects in the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015), Harry Seidler: LIFEWORK (Rizzoli, 2014), and Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985 (TATLIN, 2010). Among his numerous exhibitions: Anthony Ames: Object-Type Landscapes at Casa Curutchet, La Plata, Argentina (2015); Colombia: Transformed (American Tour, 2013-15); Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture (world tour since 2012); and Chess Game for Russian Pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008). Belogolovsky is the American correspondent for Berlin-based architectural journal SPEECH and he has lectured at universities and museums in more than 20 countries.
Belogolovsky’s column, City of Ideas, introduces ArchDaily’s readers to his latest and ongoing conversations with the most innovative architects from around the world. These intimate discussions are a part of the curator’s upcoming exhibition with the same title which premiered at the University of Sydney in June 2016. The City of Ideas exhibition will travel to venues around the world to explore ever-evolving content and design.